Germany offsets demographic decline with recruitment abroad

One in six campuses is shrinking as low birth rates bite, says study

March 22, 2019
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Changing gears: as Germany’s demographics shift, universities are recruiting more from abroad

Germany’s “shrinking universities” have managed to partially offset dwindling domestic recruitment by enrolling increasing numbers of students from abroad, according to a new report.

One in six campuses in Germany is shrinking, found a government-supported analysis from thinktank the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR). At these institutions, the number of German students has declined by 5 per cent or more over the past five years, the report says.

Two-thirds of these shrinking campuses are in the east of the country, which has been especially badly hit by falling birth rates and an exodus of young people to the richer west.

But the trend is countrywide: in 2018, the number of pupils eligible to enter university declined by 1.8 per cent, with almost all regions suffering a drop, mirroring a wider fall in young people that is expected to continue for at least a decade.

Yet according to Simon Morris-Lange, author of the report and deputy head of the SVR’s research unit, growth in international students has allowed shrinking universities to “stabilise” and mitigate declining numbers of Germans on campus – if not actually reverse the trend.

According to the report, 26 of the country’s 41 shrinking universities have boosted international numbers by at least 10 per cent over the past five years. At these institutions, international enrolments have grown by 42 per cent on average.

Saxony, a former state of the communist east, has more shrinking universities than any other, the report found (it does not identify which universities are shrinking). Over the past five years, it has lost more than 8,000 German students, a drop of 13 per cent. But international student numbers have jumped by 61 per cent, or nearly 3,500.

Christian Müller, deputy secretary general of the German Academic Exchange Service, said that shrinking universities in the east had sold themselves on Germany’s reputation for engineering prowess, and lower living costs than in big western cities such as Frankfurt and Munich.

“When you speak to them, they know there is a problem that they need to tackle,” he said. Marketing overseas had also played a big role, he argued.

Germany also boasts close to zero tuition fees for all students, and since 2012 graduates have been allowed to stay in Germany to look for work for 18 months after graduation.

Compared with systems such as Japan and Taiwan, which are also challenged by shrinking numbers of locally born youngsters, Germany has one of the most welcoming student visa systems in the world, said Mr Morris-Lange.

Unlike in Japan, there have been no university closures in Germany yet. Still, Gero Federkeil, head of international rankings at Germany’s Centre for Higher Education, warned that regional states would nonetheless have to make “tough decisions” if they wanted to keep universities open, as falling numbers led to higher costs per student.

States could choose to close down low-demand subjects in all but one university, limiting student options, warned Mr Müller.

For now, student numbers in Germany are at record levels, and universities are demanding more money to reduce student-to-staff ratios.

Nonetheless, they face a future in which there are ever fewer local applicants: over the next 15 years, the cohort of Germans aged between 18 and 25 is expected to shrink by 17 per cent, said Mr Morris-Lange, meaning international recruitment will be more important than ever.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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